Regarding Towerdogs

John -

As always it was wholly a pleasure to read the product of your reflections.  I’ll spare the group my usual soliloquy and musings ad nauseam and stick to the topic at hand.  It will be a challenge, but I’ll do my best.

In regard to the crew that showed up to work with you recently.  There, friends, we have a perfect example of the creative destruction of Capitalism.  That particular crew, operating in a free market, will eventually run out of customers willing to exchange Federal Reserve Notes for their labor.  They will drift off into other forms of work, and their vacancy will create opportunities for others more willing and suited to take their place.  It is easy to see why the Soviet Union failed.

In a planned system, these guys would have continued in their respective capacities, and the resulting inefficiencies would have played out in the finished product.  Envision that process in the Soviet military industry and it is easy to see why they had such trouble keeping things running.  (OK, OK, I know.  I promised to stay on task.  Sorry.)

It was a poignant moment for me as I read the opening line of your next thought process after the story.  Yes.  The business is changing. And, like any other process in the Capitalist system, the changes are good for some and bad for others.  It all depends on perspective.  So – in terms of perspective I’d like to take a bit of liberty and look at this industry from the outside and share a few (!) thoughts.

Since the industrial revolution, when man had the opportunity to harness the power of the sun (via its distillation over millions of years and emergence as oil) and use it to do his work, there have arisen time after time opportunities in various trades.  Consider, if you will, the mining industry in the late 19th Century, the road building industry after Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System post WW2, and the oil industry, especially in the 50′s in west Texas.

Those industries had a great deal in common with ours.  In each instance there was a stunning, marvelous, and life changing invention for which there would be an insatiable demand by American consumers.  There were pools of capital, offered by investment bankers ready to get rich.  There was an optimism and an enthusiasm experienced by the early visionaries who knew that they were involved in something that would change the world.  And of course, there was the utter dearth and emptiness in the talent pool necessary to make all of the above dreams comes true.  All of those listed above had all that it took except bodies.  They needed bodies.  Strong, willing, able bodies.  The demand resembled a vacuum and the available men were ready to fill it.  Investment bankers waved thousands of dollars in cash in front of everyone knowing that they could afford it in light of the spectacular returns. “Come one, come all, bring ye strength and willingness, fill your sacks with gold and become rich”.

And here they came:  Roughneckers in the oil fields, dozer operators on the highways, truck drivers in Iraq , gold miners during the California and Alaska rushes, hookers, cops, hoteliers, shop keepers, distillers, vinters, drug stores, concrete companies, lawyers, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers.  All willing, all feeding at the trough, all eager to get their piece of the pie.  All willing to undergo some discomfort and disruption in their lives to stake their claim in the rich fields of Capitalism, where a man is measured by his work, and not by the color of his skin or who his parents are.  For some it was greed, for some it was lust, and for others it was just a chance to make their dream come true.  Irregardless, they came, and they kept coming,  and the human drama that played out in their lives could fill countless volumes. Just like the stories of my life and yours.

In all of their coming, in all of their rush, in all of the frenzy, there were always legends born.  In the mass of people that came to claim their fortune, there were always those that I like to call “prime movers” (my apologies to Rudolph Otto, or whoever the philosopher was, that coined that term as a reference to  what most of us call God).  The Prime Movers were those that made everything else possible.  Everyone in the chain was important, all had a job to do, but some just stood out like giants among the masses.  These were usually men that had exceedingly dangerous jobs, or men that possessed some particular skill that was almost born in them, not learned.  These men (yes – they were men.  Not women.  Men.) were almost Spiritual in their zeal and zest for life.  They were big talkers, big drinkers, and big risk takers.  Everyone in the saloon and everyone in town knew who they were and usually allowed them the respect their positions deserved.

You know who they were.  They were the Roughneckers that worked the drill rigs.  They were the High Scalers that cleared the loose rock for Hoover Dam.  They were the guys flying the B17′s over the Pacific. They were the surveyors for the interstate highways.  They were the towerdogs in the early days of broadcast.  They were some of us in the early days of cellular.  Real danger, real guts, real courage, real men, and real death.

These were the guys that kicked in bar doors and bought a round for the house.  These were the guys with the big strut on payday.  These were the guys who marveled at how loose all the women were, who got more sex in a week than most men get in a month.  These were the guys with big boots, bit hats, and big hearts.  These were the swashbuckling towerdogs on parade.  These guys were the Prime Movers.  They did what others could not do.  It was fun, it was dangerous, it was magical, it was the past, and we hoped it would never end.

But, like John so clearly pointed out, it is changing.  It will change for us just like it changed for them.  The industry grew so blisteringly fast (to benefit the investment bankers, of course.  Can’t let little things like safety get in the way of their money lust) that the regulators did not have the time or resources to keep up.  Government is always a dollar short and a day late (Can you say Katrina boys and girls?).  Eventually they caught up.  And like a river of slow molasses, they began to envelope everything.  Demand also slowed a bit and with shrinking demand came shrinking margins.  We went from “I don’t care what it costs, get it done” to “Can you give me a bid on that job?” in a matter of a few short years.

I can remember that brooding feeling deep in my gut the first time I saw a full body harness. I remember standing there looking at all those pretty yellow nylon straps that went over, under, and all around ones torso, and wondering how badly they would chafe my skin.  I might even have t , perish the thought, wear a shirt.  As I sat and stared at it (“What the hell in there a “D” ring in the middle of the back for ?!?!?!?!  That’s about damn useless!”) my eyes slowly drifted over to my old leather lineman’s belt that had served me so well.  There was some emptiness, some loss, some sadness in me at that moment.  I could not put my finger on it.  Only now do I realize what it was.  John’s words were off in the future somewhere, but I heard them that day.  They came and found me.  It was changing.  Like the first rock of an avalanche or the first shudder of a volcano, it was all about to be different.

We were drug down a path.  It was a painful one in some respects, good in others.  It was a path of checks (“No boss, pay me in cash, I may not be alive to cash a check!”), W2′s. safety meetings, body harnesses, safety climb cables, OSHA inspections and citations, shrinking paychecks, Anritsu sweeps, close out documents, divorces, and shirts on summer days when their presence on our bodies seemed like blasphemy. We were drug down this path because indeed, the industry was changing.  It still is.  It will continue to. And what about us?  What happens to us?  What happened to the others?  I tell ya what happened……..

They grew old, their bodies worn and broken, their minds pickled from the whiskey, their skin fried by the sun. Their thinking was scarred from too many restless nights fighting pain, their eyes dim from too much time squinting at the sun.  Some were comfortable, some were broke financially.  Some had families they loved, some had families they lost, some died with no biological legacy.

But they all had one precious thing.  Each and every one had the ability to look up and see that bridge, see that oil refinery, see that tower, see that Dam, and see that mine.  And when they did, they had something in their heart that came alive.  And that one thing, that one feeling, that one moment of warmth, let them know who they were, and was a testament to the part that they had played in giving birth to something great. And that, my friends, is not only priceless and worth all the pain, but it is also one thing that they will take with them when they leave the planet.  It will live on with them in the next life.  It is eternal.

I am lucky enough to have it.  I remember the day that I got it.  It was my 40th birthday.  There was a failed DB 812 in Jackson Mississippi at 800 ft.  I got a crewman and we had carried a DB 810 up, replaced the bad one, and carried the 812 to the ground.  Did not have any ropes long enough, just had to do it the hard way.  We got it done, I got to the ground, and we got a call of a failed Bogner at the 500 ft. level in Desoto County, MS .

We loaded the truck, made the drive, and got it done in the same day.  I got it that day.  Whatever that thing was inside of me that said “I’ve got it” came to me on my 40th birthday.  There had been plenty of great days before that and there have been plenty of great days since, but that one day was my demarcation point.  I will take that day with me forever.  I’m a loser in some respects, and plenty deficient in lots of areas in my life.  I could list my faults and they would stretch a long ways.  That notwithstanding, I can still look back at my 40th birthday and be filled with joy and satisfaction for that event.  Not a big deal by some standards, but it was a big deal for me.

My prayer for you today is that when you draw your last breath you can have it too.  If you don’t have it now then you can go get it.  Some of us got it at the top of a 1000′ broadcast facility, some get it in a ditch. some get it in a truck in Iraq .  Some get it in a mine.  You will get it in whatever place you are called to.

I hope you have it now, or get a chance to get it before you cross the River Styx.  And on that day when you get it, I’ll rejoice with you, because I know what a great thing it is to be part of the greatest group of guys in the world, the towerdogs on parade.

Yeah John,  this business sure has changed.  I’m sitting here asking myself if I can change with it.  My Anritsu is old, my bones are old, my skills are not as sharp as they used to be.  I don’t have all of the training and certifications that they require now.  I’m just sort of an old 69 Chevy truck that somehow found his way into a field of Hummers and F350′s.  I guess I’ll just hang on as long as I can.  I could probably make the leap, probably do what it takes to run with the youngsters, but I have to ask myself it it’s worth it.  I dunno.  But I do know one thing…….

Somewhere out there is the next “deal”.  Somewhere is the insatiable demand, the hungry bankers and vacuum of talent and labor.  Somewhere out there is some kid that is tired of his ho-hum existence.  He has a twinkle in his eye and money lust in his heart.  He sees the opportunity, he wants to take the risk, to him the danger looks exciting, not hazardous.  Yeah.  He’s out there.  I’m excited for him and I grieve for him at the same time.  He, like us, will be like those that go to 12 step programs.  First time he sees that window envelope in his mailbox, and he opens it and sees those big numbers, he’ll know what addiction is, just like we do.

I’ll ride this horse as long as I can.  The youngsters are already starting to take over my market.  I’m happy for them.  They have kids, wives, truck payments, and credit card bills.  They need the work and they need the money.  I am happy for them and wish them well.  I wish everyone well.  This business has been good to me for a long time.  I hope it is just as good to them and all the other young ones out there making it happen.

Good luck to all,

Bruce Holsted

Bruce HolstedComment